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BaMidbar: Everyone Counts

The book of BaMidbar picks up where Exodus left off. Our Israelite ancestors escaped from slavery in Egypt, successfully passed through the red sea, and received the Torah at Mount Sinai. The story is interrupted by the entire book of Leviticus, describing the responsibilities of the priests as they establish the religious life of the people.

And now, the journey resumes with the book of Numbers, which one of my teachers wryly suggests, stands for the numbers of complaints recorded in its pages. They miss the food in Egypt and there’s not enough water. They are bored with manna. They resent Moses’ wife and Moses’ leadership. And they are afraid of what lies ahead.

It is easy to complain and hard to be grateful. The very word “Yehudi/Jew,” comes from the Hebrew root “toddah,” meaning gratitude. To be a Jew is to cultivate a sense of appreciation. Our tradition encourages us to feel our days with blessings of appreciation. The book of Numbers is in some sense a lesson in what NOT to do!

It’s true that when you’re embarking on a long journey, by foot, you have to really think about what you are going to carry with you. The Israelites had one night to pack their belongings before they fled for their lives.

There is so much that we imagine we need, that we can’t live without. And then, when it comes down to it, we discover that, actually, we need very little. I had the privilege of serving in the US Army for 38 years, and this is one of the lessons I learned from many weeks of living in the field. Water, a bit of food, some level of physical warmth. Those were at the top of my list of actual needs. Everything else is pretty much a want, a luxury. I was truly moved in the Army once when I saw that among the priority of supplies to the troops, ahead of ammunition, ahead of even water, the number one priority was mail. By setting this priority, the military acknowledged that the ultimate human need is for a human connection!

One of the things we desperately need is the company of other people, knowing who is with us on our journey, who are our battle buddies, as we might call them in the military. A 19th century Hassidic rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Rymanov, once said, ‘human beings are God’s language.’ That is, when you cry out to God, God responds to your cry by sending you people.

Thus, as the journey through the wilderness begins, BaMidbar opens with a census. When times are tough, we want to know who is with us, who can we count on? Do we have friends we can count on, people who call just to ask how we are doing? Do we have family members who love us unconditionally, with all our imperfections? Are we open to having friends who will tell us not only that we are the best, but also when we can do better? We need forbearance from our friends, and we must demonstrate this quality as well. If you are willing to be friends only with people who are perfect, you are guaranteed a life of loneliness.

The Israelites discovered what we all know- that an Army of one will not win the battle. We have learned how much we rely on each other and how much trust we need to have if our community is to stay safe for all of us. People who need people are the luckiest people. . .A friend”, it has been said, “ is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.”

Having a close circle of friends is an important factor in maintaining good health. Just last week the Wall Street Journal reported that, “Active religious practice, such as going to . . . synagogue(s). . . is linked to mental well-being.” (April 16, 2024, p. A10) The synagogue community is a great place to make friends. We should strive to be the type of friend described by William Penn, “A true friend advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously, and continues a friend unchangeably.”

Just as the Rabbis say, “One mitzva causes another”, so we might paraphrase, “One friendship leads to another.” While it is true that we can pray without a minyan, it is also true that without a community of other Jews our prayer is incomplete. A primary benefit of synagogue membership is the lasting friendships that are formed within the synagogue community. In general, people who voluntarily participate in a religious community are good and decent people, people who are committed to their own spiritual development and to a common set of values. What better place to begin and expand the search for lasting friendships?

We are often reluctant to make ourselves vulnerable by exposing our deepest hopes and dreams, the places which cause us pain and heartache. Certainly, to do so requires taking a risk. We may be laughed at, we may be dismissed. But the hope is that if we can somehow summon the courage to overcome our fear of losing face, the result will be deeper and more meaningful friendships and a real sense of connection to others. We may discover, along the way, that we are not alone in the challenges of life, and that if we haven’t learned from the wisdom and experience of others at least we can feel less alone. Loneliness is a plague in contemporary life, as the digital universe offers the illusion of connectivity without true human connection. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Barbara Kingsolver wrote that, “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.”

How fortunate you all are to have each other, come together each week for Shabbat, to experience a smiling face and caring concern, to hold each other’s hands even if you say the wrong thing. This is a great blessing and not to be taken for granted.

On behalf of myself and my family, we are so grateful for the friendship that you extend to my mom, Sandy, and we offer a mazal tov ad meah v’esrim to Ken Adelsberg.

The book of BaMidbar begins with a census and the reminder that every person counts. What was true for our ancestors is true for us today. Thank you for being present today and every day. What a comfort to know that we can count on each other.

We are counting on you!

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